Let’s forget the irony of celebrities spending thousands of dollars on outfits to represent a religion whose primary teachings are of charity and modesty.
The Met Ball is always a beautiful and grand event, always uncomfortably reminiscent of the Hunger Games with the distinguished dressing up to the most opulent degree whereas the people, mere peasants if you will, are sat at home watching these shows of wealth and fame from their sofas. With every Met Ball, the true divide between the wealthy elite and the ‘normal’ people becomes truly visible, to an-almost apocalyptic degree.
This year’s Met Ball was arguably the finest one yet, superseding former ones in the finesse that celebrities and designers managed to exemplify the theme, ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’.
Beautiful people and designs came together in displays akin to walking art, that deserve to be placed in museums. Rihanna wore Cardinal garb, Zendaya wore chainmail reminiscent of Joan of Arc, and crosses and murals adorned males and females alike. This Met Ball exemplified the skill and mastery of the designers, coming together to form the most beautiful and diverse completion of a Met theme ever exhibited.
Of course, this theme and ball was not without its critics. Many have come forward to protest the use of Catholicism as a fashion gimmick, arguing the use of crosses and other religious symbols – all of which are highly important to the followers of the religion – is sacrilegious.
To a certain degree, perhaps this outrage is understandable. Religion is an important institution, on a global, communal, and individual scale. To utilise it as merely a fashion statement degrades its importance to its followers and opens it up to pop culture misuse.
Yet these criticisms are uniformed for a number of reasons. Firstly, they ignore the very simple and obvious fact that the Met Ball and its theme was endorsed by the Vatican. As in the country that is the head of the religion, as in the literal physical embodiment of Catholicism, as in the Pope, the head honcho himself, ‘a-okayed’ the Ball.
To criticise the use of the theme without recognising that the official institution of the religion allowed it, does disregard the criticisms.
The theme was actively welcomed by the papacy as it combined Catholicism and beauty, something that has been long done within its history. If the critics want to levy complaints about using Catholicism to adorn dresses, they may have to levy them against Michelangelo and his murals on the Sistine Chapel.
However, many critics imposed complaints that are more worrying and symptomatic of religious complaints; that the use of Catholicism as dress was akin to cultural appropriation.
Now, this can be criticised in a number of ways. As already mentioned, the Pope himself allowed it so any complaints should be taken up with him.
Secondly, Catholicism as a religion has a history of privilege; socially, economically, and politically. It has been a dominant religion in many countries, and remains the default and respected one in many others. It forms the bedrock of many political and legal codes worldwide, such as the USA and the UK. Its holidays still dictate national holidays and the calendar itself.
To claim that this religion – that has long been one of the most respected and still influential in the world – has been culturally appropriated, or is even capable of being a victim of it, is wrong and obfuscates its privileged position. Just like ‘white culture’ cannot be culturally appropriated due to its inherent privilege, neither can Catholicism.
These critics attempted to highlight the double standard in using Catholicism as a theme, which is deemed acceptable and celebrated, whereas Islam especially could never receive the same treatment. In doing so, these critics inadvertently reveal the privilege they are trying to deny, of the religion and thus of themselves.
Islam would never be chosen as a Met theme because of its – undeservingly – low status, globally. It does not have the privilege or place that Christianity does. It is already used as a symbol of disparagement and discrimination; its religious garb is constantly appropriated for fashion and media, to denigrate and parody the religion and the negative stereotypes it has been attached to. It does not have the global wealth and entitlement that Catholicism does.
For these critics to equate the two shows their lack of introspection and their privilege.
The criticisms against the Met theme, in terms of cultural appropriation, are therefore ridiculous.
Of course, there are actual criticisms that can be levied against the ball. The sheer bourgeois nature of it all, for one. The irony of the luxury compared to the theme, a religion that supposedly is against such opulence, is another. Others have criticised the overly-positive representation of the church by the celebrities. The torrid history of colonialism, political violence, and abuse within the church has long been hidden. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Hollywood – long associated with similar hidden abuses – chose to reinforce this hidden bias.
However, this ignores some powerful and potent displays that were exhibited this year. Lena Waithe wore a simple yet potent tuxe with a rainbow flag over it, symbolising protest against the Church’s long denial of LGBTQ+ rights.
These statements should be celebrated. And the criticisms of cultural appropriation and religious sacrilegium should be ignored. The unimaginable and dizzying opulence of the Met Ball should be enjoyed, as the ridiculous show of capitalist extravagance that it is.